Jerry Chun Shing Lee had long been suspected of helping China neutralize US spying operations.
A former Central Intelligence Agency officer long suspected of helping China neutralize U.S. spying operations on its soil has been arrested on a charge that he kept and traveled with notebooks containing classified information, including the real names of covert CIA employees.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, who has been living in Hong Kong in recent years, was taken into custody Monday night as he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Lee’s arrest came after more than six years of investigation led by the FBI that also involved his former employer and other U.S. agencies. The top-secret mole-hunting probe was launched in 2012 or earlier, after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that China had somehow figured out the identities of many of their prized assets in country and detained them.
In a criminal complaint filed Saturday, Lee was charged with one felony count of retaining national defense information, a violation of the Espionage Act.
Although that charge does not relate to the long-running U.S. investigation into Lee, his suspected actions on behalf of the Beijing government likely resulted in the deaths or arrests of numerous informants that the United States had cultivated to help it spy on China, according to one former senior U.S. counterespionage official familiar with the case.
“There is no doubt that he had a big part in the problems with the sources,” the former counterespionage official told POLITICO on Tuesday night. “It definitely wasn’t just him but he had a big piece of it, given his background and what he did” as an Asia-based spy for the CIA.
Court papers said Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen, served in “various overseas position and locations” for the CIA from 1994 to 2007. The agency referred all questions about the case to the Justice Department. The FBI also declined to comment on the case.
The New York Times, which first reported Lee’s suspected role in the case Tuesday, reported last year that China had killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 such informants since 2010, possibly using tips from a mole familiar with U.S. espionage operations.
However, the initial, public court filings in the case make no reference to that crackdown and do not allege that Lee actually disclosed anything to anyone.
“If, indeed, Mr. Lee was working for the Chinese, he was in a position to do great damage,” a former senior official at the CIA responsible for China, Dennis Wilder, told POLITICO. “The turning of a CIA officer is very rare, in part, because of the stringent screening and reinvestigation process for all officers.”
Investigators clearly have had Lee, also known as Zhen Cheng Li, under scrutiny for some time. The criminal charge stems from court-ordered searches of Lee’s luggage in Hawaii and Northern Virginia hotels in 2012.
During those searches, which appear to have been conducted surreptitiously, FBI agents found two small books determined to contain information classified up to the “top secret” level that pertained to Lee’s CIA work.
“The datebook contained handwritten information pertaining to, but not limited to, operational notes from asset meetings, operational meeting locations, operational phone numbers, true names of assets, and covert facilities,” FBI special agent Kellie O’Brien said in an affidavit submitted Saturday to a federal magistrate judge in Alexandria, Virginia. “The address book contained true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, as well as the addresses of CIA facilities.”
O’Brien said the information in the books mirrored details in classified CIA cables that Lee wrote discussing his interactions with CIA “assets.”
The former U.S. counterespionage official said that while there was substantial proof of Lee’s complicity in aiding China, U.S. officials worked aggressively for years to gather enough evidence for prosecution, but found Lee to be a very savvy and difficult target given his extensive training in counter-spy defensive maneuvers.
But that former official and others said there were other complicating factors, including indications that China discovered at least some of its turncoats by intercepting and monitoring highly classified communications channels.
And even if Lee was engaged in espionage on behalf of China, the FBI and Justice Department would be extremely reluctant — as would the CIA — to disclose the evidence it had in a criminal prosecution, and how it was obtained, for fear of tipping off China to its sources and methods, according to Wilder and the former U.S. official.
Wilder also said investigators clearly suspected Lee of espionage, but might not have the proof to bring such a charge.
“If the information he had was provided to a foreign power, it would be very damning …”Dennis Wilder, former CIA senior official
“That is the kind of thing that a covert officer would only collect in that way, to sell to somebody,” he said. “But the fact that they did not arrest him on espionage charges means that they did not have direct evidence of espionage with a foreign power. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved in that. But those cases are very hard to make. You need to have a very high standard [of evidence] to charge that. You need to demonstrate contact with a foreign power, the passing of information, you have to have proof that he took this information and that he gave it to somebody else.”
O’Brien’s affidavit suggests that the FBI waited at least eight months after the searches before interviewing Lee in May and June of 2013. He apparently then returned to Hong Kong. It’s unclear whether he has been in and out of the United States between 2013 and his arrest Monday night.
Wilder said the delay in arresting Lee suggested that the FBI was trying to put together more evidence but ultimately couldn’t.
“They obviously sensed that he was doing wrong,” Wilder said. “Waiting until 2018 to arrest him, I imagine that they were hoping to build a strong espionage case against him … If the information he had was provided to a foreign power, it would be very damning, whether it was connected to Beijing or not.”